The Limits of Wisdom
"Well, then, shall mere glory distract you? Look at the swiftness of the oblivion of all men; the gulf of endless time, behind and before; the hollowness of applause, the fickleness and folly of those who seem to speak well of you, and the narrow room in which it is confined. This should make you pause. For the entire earth is a point in space, and how small a corner thereof is this your dwelling place, and how few and how paltry those who will sing your praises here!....The Universe is change, life is opinion."
I hope this finds you well. Today, we’re going to continue our series exploring the biographies of a few famous philosophers from history.
Today, we look at the life and wisdom of Marcus Aurelius. We’ve studied him many times before here at TPP, but today we’re going to take another perspective—at the people and events that surrounded him.
What we know most about Aurelius is what remains of his pensive reflections in works like Meditations—a near-daily self-reflection based in Stoicism. Aurelius was so thoughtful and such an intense student of philosophy, that he is known by many as the true Philospher-King.
Aurelius inherited a role as Roman Emperor which—by that time—was largely accepted to be dictatorial and authoritarian. Julius Caesar had usurped power from the Senate hundreds of years prior to Aurelius and completely changed the nature of Roman rule and political culture—he normalized militarism, violence, and authoritarianism.
In this unlikely environment Aurelius emerges, not as a typical power-hungry autocrat, but a student of Epictetus, deeply committed to self-growth, and keenly self-aware. By all accounts he was wise, measured, compassionate, and kind—not the usual qualities of a dictator.
But what strikes me about Aurelius beyond his rare nature, are the ways in which he was seemingly blinded by love to the threats posed by those closest to him.
For example, he consciously broke with tradition in insisting his son Commodus succeed him as emperor. In that time, succession wasn’t based on name, but merit. It was common for an emperor to choose a valiant general or well-known politician and adopt them as heir—in this way maintaining a certain stability and predictability.
Against all advice, he insisted that Commodus inherit the position—even as Commodus appears to himself reject the role. How could such a thoughtful, reflective person remain so stubborn in the face of council and even the apparently obvious desires of his son?
In another drama, it was rumored during a military campaign that Aurelius had died. This rumor spread rapidly around the empire and was believed as fact for months.
In this time, Aurelius’ wife began an affair with Aurelius’ most trusted advisor who managed his personal estate in Egypt (and who many thought should have succeeded Aurelius as Emperor) and convinced him he should ride for Rome and take the throne.